The Internet is a network of networks. Its transnational nature, lacking any central administration, means that it is not possible for any single individual to shape it completely based on their own ideas. Rather, the number of parties involved in shaping and regulating the Internet runs into the hundreds, and includes governments, international organisations, companies, technical committees, and many more.
It is in this context that Internet researcher Laura DeNardis talks about the “distributed governance” of the Internet. Rules for the Internet can emerge in various ways, and at various levels, with the involvement of a range of stakeholders.
1. Technical Bodies
Many different groups and organisations are already working on the underlying infrastructure of the Internet, with groups such as playing an important role in this respect. The California-based organisation is the highest authority when it comes to coordinating how web addresses are assigned. Other regional and national address administration agencies and registries also exist, such as for addresses with a “.de” suffix.
The is an open working group of developers, and sets many technical standards at the deeper technical levels of the Internet. acts as an umbrella organisation for ICANN, the IETF and a number of other committees. Its purpose is to maintain the infrastructure of, and promote the spread of the Internet. It is a non-profit association that originated in the U.S., and which has branches in many regions and countries throughout the world.
A number of other committees and working groups also focus on standards and technical foundations, and among these the plays an important role. This consortium focuses on aspects such as enhancing the technologies and format for the HTML code used in websites.
2. Private Companies
Companies help shape the Internet and its rules in many areas. For example, many web services and social networks have established General Terms and Conditions. These regulate in more detail what users can do on their platforms and what they should not do. Telecommunications providers and other service providers manage the data flow infrastructure – from data centres, via powerful main lines (backbone) and on to international undersea cables.
Companies can also work together on implementing specific overarching rules and processes; in Germany, for example, numerous online services have united as part of the association to ensure child and youth protection issues are given due attention in online media. Public and private regulation often overlap: The term “regulated self-regulation” refers to an arrangement in which companies regulate themselves, while the state oversees to ensure that the system is functioning as required.
Many companies operating within the Internet economy have also become members of industry associations in order to ensure that their interests will be represented in the political sector and to the public. These associations include and the , and , an industry association in the U.S.
3. Governments and agencies
National governments shape the rules of the Internet in multiple ways. Laws for specific areas, developed by national parliaments or EU institutions, are just one of many approaches here.
Agencies for various sectors are also involved in applying and monitoring rules concerning the Internet. For example, the German (Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway) monitors compliance with European regulations on non-discriminatory data traffic (). Together, the European regulatory authorities form a body known as .
In addition, governments are represented on the advisory bodies of organisations such as ICANN, and also on the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
4. Civil Society Stakeholders
Civil society organisations are built on civic commitment, and can include non-governmental organisations and foundations, for example. They also influence the regulation and self-regulation of the Internet with actions such as shaping the public agenda through campaigns, getting involved in political decision-making processes, or facilitating the quest for shared values in relation to new technologies and applications.
Many civil society initiatives focus on access to information and knowledge or goods produced cooperatively on the Internet. Open-source initiatives such as the and are committed to promoting software licensing that allows code to be freely accessed, used and modified, while the promotes the Firefox browser among other things, and the supports projects like the Wikipedia free encyclopaedia. The network is an international association of civil society stakeholders committed to issues such as free Internet access and protecting human rights online.
5. International Organisations
Both general international institutions and specialised organisations are involved in shaping and regulating the Internet. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was established as a result of a United Nations resolution establishing a dedicated working group (WGIG). The UN General Assembly has also addressed issues relating to Internet governance in its resolutions on privacy in the digital age, and international cyber security, for example.
Another UN advisory body (the ) is currently tasked with developing new ideas for international collaboration in the digital world. The , which focuses on technical specifications in the telecommunications sector – e.g. for the 5G wireless standard – is a separate, specialised agency of the UN.
In addition, a large number of other international organisations are working within their own spheres of activity on regulations that directly or indirectly affect the Internet. For example, the trade rules of the also affect the IT industry. Also, proposals by the European Union and other countries for an agreement on electronic commerce are currently being discussed.